More than 100 people suspected of selling heroin, methamphetamine, prescription narcotics, cocaine and marijuana have been arrested since Wednesday as part of the latest effort to clean up the business and retail core.
The city’s latest — and perhaps most comprehensive — push to clean up the open-air drug market that has long plagued downtown Seattle’s retail core has resulted in more than 100 arrests since Wednesday, with many more expected.
The arrests announced Thursday are part of the new “9½ Block Strategy,” a multipronged approach to combat and reduce street crime in the area between First and Fourth avenues and Union and Stewart streets.
During a news conference Thursday at Seattle police headquarters, Mayor Ed Murray, along with federal and local law-enforcement officials, announced the arrests after city, state and federal investigations into nearly 200 suspects. The arrests, which began Wednesday, were expected to continue into Friday.
“Seattle residents and visitors should not be forced to navigate a dangerous open-air drug market between the downtown retail core and Pike Place Market,” Murray said.
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The 9½-block area annually accounts for 10,000 calls for service in the downtown retail core, according to police. The entire city accounts for fewer than 900,000 calls each year.
The arrests, dubbed “Operation Crosstown Traffic,” involved undercover officers who made 177 purchases of heroin, meth, marijuana, crack cocaine and other drugs from 186 street dealers. All of the transactions were caught on hidden cameras, police said.
“The successful operations this week underscore the value of collaborative enforcement efforts with our federal and regional partners,” said Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. “We will continue our collective efforts to promote safe and healthy neighborhoods, downtown and throughout the city.”
O’Toole said the people arrested, or still being sought, are suspected of participating in low-level, hand-to-hand drug dealing as well as drug-related thefts.
Seattle police Capt. Eric Sano, after the news conference, said a big portion of the problem area is the 1500 block of Third Avenue, between Pike and Pine.
Sano said that from April 2014 to April 2015, police responded to 1,700 calls for service in that one block alone. During the same period, there were 180 violent crimes reported in that block, Sano added.
Of the nearly 200 suspects under investigation in “Operation Crosstown Traffic,” 37 have been indicted federally, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The others will be prosecuted in state or municipal court.
Both King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Acting U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes said their prosecutors will ask that upon conviction the felons be ordered by judges to stay out of the nine-block area.
“The defendants won’t readily be able to go back to the same place,” Satterberg said.
Both Satterberg and officials at the Seattle City Attorney’s Office said their offices will consider diversion programs in some of the cases — such as drug courts, mental-health court and the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, which connects low-level offenders with treatment and housing.
City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a news release that his office is investigating 40 suspects who sold marijuana in the downtown area, which he says is illegal and “not what I-502 promised” when it was passed by voters.
“I-502 promised to displace illegal sales, both from the street and from brick and mortar stores,” Holmes wrote. “The marijuana-dealing suspects with the most serious records are being charged by the U.S. Attorney; the County Prosecutor is charging others and I’ve agreed to charge those with the least extensive records with misdemeanor street vending or drug traffic loitering where possible based on our City code.”
Lisa Daugaard, the policy director at King County’s Public Defender Association, questioned Operation Crosstown Traffic, saying “it remains to be seen how this operation intends to coordinate with LEAD, but few of those arrested are being engaged through the LEAD program.” She said she feared a return to War on Drugs tactics.
“The majority are being dealt with using old-school War on Drugs tactics. Why, I’m not certain. We’ll be in dialogue with police and prosecutors to explore how this can work differently in the future,” Daugaard wrote in an email.
Included in the “9½ Block Strategy” is a new storefront operations center on Second Avenue between Pike and Pine streets, where police, prosecutors and social-service providers will share space, identify the most serious offenders for arrest and collaborate on steps to take.
Seattle police will assign one lieutenant, on a full-time basis, to manage enforcement and another to keep track of arrests, convictions and participation in the LEAD program In announcing the push, Murray said the LEAD program would be expanded.
Additional officers will be brought in, joining West Precinct officers and others already working on a recently formed neighborhood response team.
One assistant city attorney will work full time out of the operations center and one deputy King County prosecutor will assist on a part-time basis. LEAD case managers and supervisors will work with them and police to help determine who is eligible for the program.
The Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), a street-cleaning and outreach organization funded by downtown property owners, is leasing the storefront and providing eyes on the ground.
Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, which founded and is aligned with the MID, called the strategy “just the type of effort we’ve been advocating for a number of years.”
In addition, bus stops will be moved, alleys restricted and newspaper boxes used by drug dealers removed as part of the “9½ Block Strategy.”
“Drug dealing, and the misery, violence and crime that follows in its wake, has no place in our downtown,” Satterberg said Thursday. ”We will shut it down with every tool we have.”